Wyoming Makes Reporting Environmental Disasters Illegal

from the ag-gag-embiggened dept

Techdirt has written several times about so-called “ag-gag” laws, which have the strange effect of making it illegal for members of the public to expose animal abuse on farms. Slate has a fascinating report about how Wyoming is bringing in its own kind of ag-gag law that is so wide in its reach that it could make taking photos in Yellowstone illegal:

photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government.

The specificity of that restriction sounds absurd. Why on earth would anyone want to prevent environmental data being gathered? Here’s why:

The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death.

The reason the state is trying to do that is because the E. coli in question comes from cows, and cows have clout in Wyoming:

Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem.

The law is framed broadly: it makes it a crime to “preserve information in any form” about “open land” if there is any intention to submit it to a federal or state agency. That means that if you discovered a major environmental disaster in Wyoming, no matter how life-threatening, you had better keep information about it to yourself. As the Slate post points out:

By enacting this law, the Wyoming legislature has expressed its disdain for the freedoms protected by the First Amendment and the environmental protections enshrined in federal statutes. Today, environmentally conscious citizens face a stark choice: They can abandon efforts to protect the lands they love or face potential criminal charges.

Now that’s what I call an ag-gag law.

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Comments on “Wyoming Makes Reporting Environmental Disasters Illegal”

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Anon says:

Re: Re:

This is obviously unconstitutional. Whatever it means nowadays. Next clear violation?

But if you widely publish the information for all to see, then it’s clearly protected. And publications are clearly protected. First amendment and all that… So the law essentially makes it illegal to secretly report disasters only to the authorities?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Easy workaround

the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government.

No problem, then. Simply gather the data without planning to share it with state or federal governments. Instead, put it up on the web somewhere and make a HUGE stink in the media about it. That seems like it would be perfectly legal under the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Easy workaround

The bill is written so weirdly that this actually works.

“(d) As used in this section:
(i) “Collect” means to take a sample of material, acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form from open land which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government;”

According to this bill, if you don’t submit it to the government or intend to submit it, you didn’t collect it; so you’re not in violation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: And they wonder why some people consider them hicks?

Still a first amendment violation. Taking photos is protected expression, particularly when you have an audience for them.

“to achieve First Amendment protection, a plaintiff must show that he possessed: (1) a message to be communicated; and (2) an audience to receive that message, regardless of the medium in which the message is to be expressed.”
Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group 1995 (from here)

Photography with the express intent to distribute to federal and state agencies (or anyone else) falls squarely within that ruling.

Anonymous Coward says:

First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It’s this part of the First Amendment which is most offended by this.

The Fourteenth Amendment means that states can’t abridge this right either.

If anyone here is from Wyoming: You need to find out who voted for this, and make sure to never vote for them again, even if you generally agree with them on certain issues. They’ve shown themselves to be willing to blatantly trample your rights and the environment, to pander to a special interest group. They’re not fit to be elected dogcatcher.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I suspect a big part of how this happened is that there are so few people in Wyoming. The population of the entire state is a little more than half a million people. And about half of that population is employed be the agricultural industry.

My guess is that at least 25% of the population thinks this kind of law is a good thing because they think it will help them to keep their jobs.

sorrykb (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It looks like almost everyone in the Wyoming legislature voted for it.

Don’t miss this section at the end of the bill:

(f) Resource data collected in violation of this section in the possession of any governmental entity as defined by W.S. 1-39-103(a)(i) shall be expunged by the entity from all files and data bases, and it shall not be considered in determining any agency action.

It would appear that even if you did manage to share your data with the news media, Wyoming state officials and agencies would be required to pretend it didn’t exist.

Congratulations, people of Wyoming. Willful ignorance is now the law of the land.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“So how does a state government expect to force the federal government to destroy said data.”

I may have missed it, but I don’t see anything in the law that requests or requires the feds to destroy any data they receive. Probably because that would just get the feds to respond with the legally enforceable answer of “fuck off”.

But the law does allow the state to punish the people who gathered and reported the data to the feds (assuming that it survives the inevitable constitutional challenge, which I think is highly unlikely).

Anonymous Coward says:

the Feds are even worse

It’s not just the state of Wyoming that acts this way, the federal government also restricts 1st-Amendment rights on public property such as National Parks and US Forest Service lands.

The U.S. Forest Service has tightened restrictions on media coverage in vast swaths of the country’s wild lands, requiring reporters to pay for a permit and get permission before shooting a photo or video in federally designated wilderness areas.

Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in 36 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.

Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don’t get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.

First Amendment advocates say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they’d allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories.



Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: the Feds are even worse

“Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don’t get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.”

This is a prime example of why I am loosing faith in the government (or well, pretty much totally lost it actually). A permit cost $1,500 but not having it gives you a $1000 fine? So basically I can save $500 by breaking the law?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: the Feds are even worse

Not necessarily. It might even be something like a typical city filming permit, where the police will cordon off a section of the street to keep out the public during filming of a movie or TV show.

The “word on the street” was that as long as you didn’t set up a tripod with a big, expensive looking camera in a national park, you were probably safe ignoring the photography permit requirement.

andy says:


Maybe someone can use the new trade laws to charge the state trilli0ons for not acknowledging the fact that their cows are infested with ecoli thus causing issues elsewhere around the world, we can only hope that this crazy tpp law comes into force and America can be bankrupted and start actually being run by its people and not corporations.

Anonymous Coward says:


I don’t think most countries could object to E. coli pollution in Wyoming rivers – why would an Australian company care? It would be more likely that a foreign-owned ranching company would use the TPP to object to any proposed regulations that would increase their costs, preventing us from ever fixing the problem.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Small Government

This is something to think about for all those (primarily Libertarians) who constantly cheer for “small government!!”. You see, much like an investment porfolio, a government functions best when it is larger, and has more diverse interests represented. For example, voters in NYC would not be in favor of Wyoming’s gag law, but their opinions don’t matter to the state of WY, and thus small government also means small-minded.

Think of all the studies that show diversified thinking results in better decisions. Small gov’t ignores that.

Think about a resource-extraction state, like Alaska. Do you think Alaska is “balanced” in their governance when choices are between protecting the environment, and extracting more oil or trees? Well, since most people in the state are paid either directly or indirectly by resource extraction, they get lots of “drill baby drill”, and nothing else.

Ever see a mining town that was anti-mining? Iowa is corn first, WY is cows first, Alaska is resource extraction first, and damn the consequences. Great!

This is not an argument for “one world government”, much as a stock porfolio diversity plan does not need thousands of stocks. A dozen or more provides adequate diversity. A nation as diverse and as large as the USA has plenty of diversity built-in. But distilled down to the state level, local priorities may be biased by local enterprise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Small Government

Oh, no. You have this completely backwards. They can get away with this sort of thing because government is so large and has its fingers in so many pies that hardly anyone is going to base their votes off of this.

Voters in NYC would not be in favor of this law, but the law only applies to unincorporated areas, so they also wouldn’t be likely to base their votes off of this.

When you elect your Senator or the President, are you going to base your vote on environmental laws, or copyright, or gay marriage, or NSA surveillance, or taxes, or Social Security, or immigration, or gun control, or asset forfeiture, or the TSA, or Obamacare, or No Child Left Behind, or campaign finance laws, or farm subsidies, or transportation funding, or something else? The more things the government is doing, the more you have to hold your nose and vote for someone who agrees with you on only some of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Small Government

But many people are made to believe that every problem in society can be cured by having more government — more laws, more agencies, more enforcement. And by that rationale, if enlarging the government fails to solve the problems it was designed to cure, or creates additional problems no one anticipated, then the solution to over-government is not less government, but even more.

KRA says:

Federal lands?

Since Yellowstone is a national park, I would think it’s under federal jurisdiction. Can the state pass a law about what people can do on federal land? What about on private property? Can I take water samples from my own stream and do what I want with them?

Part of what makes this story so sad–aside from the bought-and-paid-for politician angle–is the fact that there is clearly no government oversight of these lands, since it’s the citizen scientist who’s under attack in this law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Conflict Potential

This looks tailor made for a court case on conflicting legislation.
Let’s say I work on a pipeline (many of which flow through Wyoming) and I witness a spill. Every pipeline worker must have training on reporting Abnormal Operating Conditions, and the law is quite clear regarding mandatory reporting.
A state law that prohibits data collection and reporting vs. a federal law that requires reporting on the exact same incident sounds like a good opportunity to sit back and open up some popcorn.

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